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The Cost of Yoga, For What It’s Worth

in Business of Yoga, Yogitorials
Free yoga in Bryant Park, NYC.

Free yoga in Bryant Park, NYC.

While the commodification of yoga has long been a controversial topic, the monetization of it remains a bone of contention and frustration. Practitioners don’t want to (or don’t have the means to) pay a lot to practice it, but teachers want to get paid a living wage for teaching it and facilitators for facilitating it. Can we somehow find the balance?

Why Yoga Is a Broke-Ass Business” an article from Michelle Marchildon being passed around the internets lately, tackles this very real conundrum and offers a few ways we can all share the wealth, with the number one suggestion being consumer consciousness. Realizing we’re not on our own here and that where and when we spend our dollars is how to keep each and everyone afloat.

Or maybe we just accept the fact that the philosophy behind yoga is counterintuitive to the capitalistic nature of commercialization. That there will be some teachers who just won’t make tons of money (or even enough to not have a second or third source of income). ”Today, yoga is believed to be a lucrative career path,” Marchildon says in her post, but that’s where I have to disagree. I don’t know any teachers or wanna-be teachers jumping into the yoga game because they think it will actually be a well-paying gig. They may hope that it pays the bills, and may, unfortunately, look to Instagram as the path to success. There may be a few who reach celeb status, but for the majority, send your kids to college and you into retirement, it will not. Should it, though? We’ve seen what happens to those who do achieve multi-million dollar empires. They get swallowed up by their own power, like Bikram, or fritter it away by being too consumed by their own ambition and ego, like John Friend.

(If we really wanted to be “rich” we’d get rid of most of our material things and expenditures that we’re just used to paying by now: cell phone bills, organic produce, artisanal soaps, expensive yoga pants, yoga festivals, etc. But that’s another story!)

To make extra money, yoga teachers teach privately, hold retreats or lead teacher trainings. The problems there are that not everyone can afford private sessions, retreats are a nice vacay but the financial benefits don’t last long, and teacher trainings are good for exposure but they’re usually physically and emotionally draining and end up making more money for the studio, less for your pockets. If you’re popular enough you can travel around teaching workshops which, again, are super taxing. Or maybe even hit up the Wanderlust circuit, which we highly doubt pays anything truly livable, unless you can survive on feathers and body paint. This is why agencies like YAMA Talent exist. YAMA Talent is “the world’s first management company, booking agency and consulting firm dedicated to nurturing the careers of yoga teachers.” Sounds intriguing and even promising, doesn’t it? But as with the book publishing, acting and music industries that have similar freelance/management structures, a few lucky folks will be successful while others will keep treading water, paying more people to help them “make it,” and working their second job serving coffee.

Meanwhile Starbucks is now paying for college educations.

That’s not to say you should just give up.

What if there was an industry standard where teachers were paid on a scale of experience and they could even save some money? We’ve had a push and pull tug of war battle with wanting regulation and not wanting regulation a la Yoga Alliance, and whether or not it’s even possible or makes any sense because there are too many lineages and methods to condense into a stack of requirements and hours. So, yeah, a Yoga Starbucks? That wouldn’t work. Though I won’t be surprised when Lululemon steps in with their ambassador 401k plan, that is, if ambassadors got paid.

Which brings me to free classes, cheap classes and the cost of yoga. Marchildon suggests that all of these free yoga classes, like those at Lululemon and those offered in the park in the summer, are spoiling everyone to the point that $20 sounds like a criminal rip-off. But living in NYC, yoga classes are still in the range of $20-35 and up and there are still people who can afford it, though they may be willing to do so less and less. The problem with the one-off free yoga with a random teacher every week is that it devalues the regular study and connection one might have with a primary teacher on a regular basis (not to mention the risk of injury and confusion those mass classes can invite.) BUT, banning free classes doesn’t seem like the answer either. In that case we might as well go ahead and call a boycott on all YouTube videos and online yoga classes. Plus those events are fun and a lot of newbs are more likely to try yoga this way. It’s helps make yoga more accessible.

Though a lot of studios are making thousands (average 200hr YTT costs $2-3k) on hosting teacher trainings every year, those free classes plus the influx of Groupon and other discount ops are taking a toll on the bottom line. And these studios need to make money, you know, to pay the teachers.

Something’s got to give.

Yoga High in the Lower East Side just put out a big message to their students yesterday. They informed them that going forward there will be no discounts at all, that it has been too hard to survive with the competition of free classes and that in order to pay their teachers a decent wage it’s just what has to be done. Their logic is, we all need to participate in the give and take — the something for nothing model is not sustainable.

Via their newsletter:

While the discounts might seem great from the perspective of the yoga student who wants to get a good deal, it really means that Yoga teachers are unbelievably underpaid ($20 per class in many cases at this point), independent Yoga studios are barely making it, and many studios are closing their doors in New York. YogaHigh is trying to stay open, and we’ve made as many sacrifices as we possibly can – for example, not paying ourselves for many hours of service while also putting more and more money into the business.

At this point, our only option is to ask you, our community, to start paying what we deeply feel yoga is worth. We feel that $22 per class is a fair amount, especially in New York City, where you pay $22 for a sandwich or a cocktail. We LOVE teachingyoga and would do it for free (and have!) but at this point we are losing money because of our prices and this is what we have to do.

We sincerely hope you understand and that you continue to enjoy your practice and your community here at Yoga High. We know that there are studios in the city that will always be below market price, but we hope that you would be discerning, and understand that just like the low prices at Wallmart have hidden human costs, there is always a reason why people are able to offer you free or cheap yoga. Someone else is suffering.

With that said, we do understand that there are many of you who simply cannot afford $22 per class or a commitment of $150 per month. In order to serve you and make sure that everyone can have a yoga practice, we will be offering a few $10 Community classes. We feel it is important to offer these as an option, and we hope that if you are someone who can afford the higher price, that even in Community classes you will opt to pay the full price of $22  instead. These classes will not be taught by teachers in training; they will be taught by 500 Hour graduates who will be paid for the service.

Who’s to say if this is the answer? (Maybe some economists.) We forget sometimes that the yoga industry is part of a much bigger economy relying on part-time employees and the cheapest way to do things as possible in the short term, despite the consequences. Some may think the Wal-Marts and the Starbucks are evil, but at least they have health benefits and strong coffee.

I have to wonder, is it possible for yoga, the one we teach, practice, dress ourselves up in, credit for our sanity, share on Instagram, to maintain its values and still make a living? Or is compromising our ideals the price we have to pay?

~

hollypenny is a writer, yoga practitioner and home practice advocate living in New York City. Her interests include taking long walks, meeting smart people and trying to make sense of the world.  

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Earlier

23 comments… add one

  • Good essay Holly. I very much appreciate that you end with a question (and question all along) instead of making up things to tailor an argument, i.e. ‘follow your dreams and you will be paid.’ It would be nice to imagine yoga not being capitalistic, but we have a few hundred years of capitalism as the foundation of this country. Expecting anything not to be influenced by it is ridiculous. I think that each of your questions has to be answered on an individual and regional basis. Some cities provide enough infrastructure and community to support teachers; others do not. Then you have creating your own niche, something those of us who would never throw up a pose on Instagram deal with. For myself, it’s been launching a national program based on yoga, music and neuroscience that I’ve spent years co-developing. I’m one of the lucky ones: I work for Equinox and have full health coverage (I contribute something monthly), which turned out huge in my recent dealings with cancer. As a teacher for over a decade, I will admit that I’ve had to keep my business mind as sharp as in any creative project that I’m undertaking. There is no single answer to survival here. You are right in that some teachers are just fortunate to have made a big enough impact that they can survive (and for a few, thrive) financially from teaching. Good for them, they’ve put in the work. Any new teacher needs to recognize the importance that all the other elements, beyond authenticity in and passion for teaching, play in building a career from this path.

  • Vision_Quest2

    I probably am in the wrong city and state to be practicing commercialized yoga. Infrastructure is right~!

    How about historically-relevant for decades socialized medicine, guaranteeing health insurance for ALL (with a means-test) … maybe Minnesota is a great place to practice commercialized yoga.

    But at least this studio has the GUTS to be upfront about it. No bait-and-switches of the discount lure and then the staredowns and the sales pitches and the upsales. NO SIR.

    If they REALLY want to reach the community, put out a DVD (not all of us have the streaming speed) and get onto facebook. Become interactive. And then shut up about not having any students!!

  • I was once told I am “De-valuing yoga” because I offer yoga for $10 and 10pks for $90. (3 months to use it.)
    I don’t see that as De-valuing, I see it as a HUGE value especially to those who might not have gone to one $20+ yoga class with an insanely flexible young hot things. My students can now afford to come to 2-3 times a week which is a HUGE value to them, and to me because they many brings friends and family. They can feel comfortable in a yoga class and not feel like they can’t afford it more than once a week.
    Yoga has changed. Sad but true. It is a money maker if you sell products, have TT and go on retreats. But the majority of my students are not rich but consistent. They just want to walk without a limp, breath easier and have less stress and stretch. Will I continue to offer $10 classes? You bet. I will even offer them in Spanish! My private classes are also reasonable and I am getting busier by the week. (we have been open 3 months). My goal is every BODY gets to practice yoga, not just the rich and flexible.
    Namaste!

  • Vision_Quest2

    @ Rachel, I don’t mind if I am in a class with the flexible young hot things. I consider myself an enthusiastic dance maven …

    I do mind if my yoga teacher does not agree that having wonderfully stable hips is a great thing to have, and not just some kind of euphemism for my valuing something they devalue in themselves …

    That burns even more than the cost.

  • Mary

    I, too, offer affordable yoga in my small, backyard studio. My class size is limited, my schedule is limited, the students have to interact on social media to make sure a class will “make.” the structure is more of a co-op than a business; the students are responsible for showing up for class. Because I charge so little ($8 a class/ $75 ten class commitment/bartering arrangements are also available), I don’t teach if only one student shows up, so I encourage them to plan with each other if they want class. I have no staff, no software, no sound system other than a little iPod player. I do the landscaping myself, I keep the room clean and the props fresh and clean by myself.
    I also teach at a studio that pays me by the class. I offer my classes at my home for people who cannot pay the $20 a class or (relatively inexpensive) $75 a month at the commercial studio. Some of my students have switched over to the larger studio, and I wish them well and teach them there. Some will never walk in there for either financial or other reasons.
    I do not feel like I am competing with the larger studio. I do not pull students from there, even though I send students into that system. I have a plan for how I want to teach yoga: small classes, affordable, no fancy yoga pants or tops required. And I want to practice abundance: the belief that there is enough to go around. Enough teachers, enough students, enough yoga.

    My philosophy is not popular with large studio owners (including mine) as there is fear that I will take business away. I do not offer twenty classes a week; I have no waiting area or parking lot for socializing; when I take a vacation, I don’t have a sub cover my class and my students then have to go without yoga. It’s a different model, so I don’t feel like I’m competing. I’m offering something different.

    I won’t get rich doing this. That’s not the point.

  • Vision_Quest2

    Who are the price-insensitive? That’s who you want …

    We, the price-SENSITIVE, on the other hand, know what WE must do or not do …

  • Patrick

    If the market is such that, in order for a teacher to earn a living, because he/she cannot earn enough from teaching classes, he/she has to earn by training other teachers, the market is clearly not sustainable.

    The model is broken.

  • I agree with Patrick. The model is broken and not sustainable. We get paid like unskilled laborers. Meaning it doesn’t matter how long John has been mowing lawns, we value lawn mowing at x amount and that is all we will pay him. The yoga market is getting to be like that. Doesn’t matter how long John has been teaching yoga or how many trainings he has done, or how many times he has been to India, we only want to pay an average of $5-$10 per class. This happened because the market is flooded with teachers so teachers are undervalued because they come a dime a dozen. More teacher trainings makes this worse. However, that is what people are doing, more teacher trainings, which in the long run, will make the market even worse.

  • Leslie Fiore

    Great article but please don’t mention Bikram and John Friend in the same breath. It’s like comparing Ted Bundy with someone who got a speeding ticket.

  • Do you want to know the secret to making a small fortune in yoga?

    Start with a large fortune.

  • Vision_Quest2

    And if you’re young, only 2 rules apply across-the-board:

    1. Pick wealthy parents
    2. Go the distance

  • Yoga Studio Owner

    Yes, experienced yoga instructors should get paid increasingly higher fees, which is what our studio does. As a result, we have developed a solid team of superb, committed instructors , which in turn has resulted in a large, appreciative student base.

    However, instructors should expect neither an annuity for their past efforts, nor fees that enable them to pay all of their monthly bills in exchange for teaching just a few classes per week (the author of the original article teaches 5 classes per week). Everybody in the yoga biz must work hard to earn their keep. That might mean working at various studios 40+ hours each week or perhaps even holding another job, despite having kids, despite traffic, and despite all of the other challenges faced by all other workers. Yes, some yoga teachers are highly trained, but even they don’t have the same level of training — nor have they invested the time and money — required by most professions.

    Similarly, yoga studio owners who have made incorrect business decisions should not expect to survive in a competitive environment. If you are within 10 miles of studios like CorePowerYoga, Pure Yoga or YogaWorks, you must invest a large sum of money in your studio and teachers, and you must exercise great patience, before you can expect a return.

  • Skrab

    I think you make some strong points. I am acquainted and friends with many yoga teachers and holistic practitioners. Many of them want to earn enough to enable them to live an upper middle class lifestyle (nice clothes, live in nice area, travel, be able to afford really good food) but only work three or four days a week between 10 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. and to jet off for months. Very few of us are so talented or lucky that we get it both ways. You either get security and creature comforts in exchange for working long hours with little flexibility or you get flexibility and short hours with less security and comfort.

    I

  • Again, this is a sign of a broken market. Why do we have to teach at 3 or 4 different studios? Why can’t one studio hire a few teachers and figure out how to make it profitable for them to be there? School teachers don’t jump from school to school all day long. I was told that studios didn’t want to “put all their eggs in one basket”. They didn’t want a “super star” teacher to have too much pull and if they leave, risk them taking students with them. Why not just make those teachers happy so they don’t want to leave?

  • Yoga Studio Owner

    Great questions and points, Shanna. Like Skrab indicated, at least half of the yoga teachers we have dealt with over the years try to emulate the seemingly bohemian lifestyles of yoga superstars (who, in reality, work much harder and more methodically than their disciples) by changing their life plans on a whim and disappearing. You sound like you do not fall into this category, but you are probably well aware of that personality type. Studio owners have been “burned” so often by suddenly departing teachers (some of whom are highly paid, and some of whom actively attempt to take students with them), that we have learned to dole out classes in a way that prevents any single teacher departure from destroying the entire business. We recommend that you supplement your own yoga teaching by working as a yoga studio manager so that you get a complete view of the business. It can be crazy, fun, challenging, enlightening, disheartening, rewarding, nerve-wracking and uplifting, sometimes all within a 15-minute period. :)

  • Vision_Quest2

    Don’t forget to reel in those students who are on the fence about Teacher Training. Grab ‘em while yoga still has not yet reached Full Backlash Status … and the only public yoga being taught are by and for older women in church basements anymore … just like it had been before Big Yoga rolled into town … Probably not going to happen, but one can dream … Anyway, there will be a lot more fusion yoga practices and a lot more breathable viveka in the air …

    Don’t forget to do what you can, NOW, but do it with “integrity” (or as reasonable a facsimile as you could muster) … or the Karma Police will bite you in your yoga butt …

  • Actually, I was the director of a yoga studio. I am sorry to hear about anyone that has been burned. But to say that because of that one situation, I will not give teachers enough classes for a living wage goes against yoga which states that we should be rooted and grounded in the present moment. Yes, there will be some who will “steal” students but there are also many teachers who want to do the right thing by the studio and their students and they would never intentionally steal students.

    What I find usually happens is that the teacher does not intentionally steal students. When I left my last studio, students wanted to know where I was going so I told them. Is that stealing students? If a teacher e-mails their students and tells them where they are going, is that stealing students? Are these the teacher’s students or were they the studios students?

    From the students stand point, if I want to continue with my current teacher, that is my right. She didn’t steal me. She was MY teacher.

    Now if the teacher was bad mouthing the studio, I would say that is not good. However, if the teacher was telling the truth about practices that the studio was engaged in that caused them to leave, is that really bad mouthing?

    I would say that it is a risk of doing business that when you get rid of a teacher, the students may go. However, is that really a reason to force teachers to have to travel all over town teaching and wearing themselves out because the studio is afraid of this probability? I would say chose the right teachers and the chances of this happening are smaller.

  • Yoga Studio Owner

    Great points, Shanna. All established studios have experienced sudden teacher departure far more than once, so we don’t generalize from a single instance as you suggested. Also, studios do try to choose the right teachers as you recommended. In our experience with our studio and with other studios, most don’t terminate their chosen teachers, but rather teachers tend to leave on their own.

    Some teachers believe that students who attend their classes are “their students”, despite the fact that those same students may have been coming to the studio long before the teacher arrived on the scene. Those teachers fail to recognize the astounding amounts of time, money and effort that preceded their arrival, and which gave them a platform to teach yoga.

    Some large yoga chains who offer ~100 classes per week, such as CorePowerYoga, are able to provide living wages for teachers who choose to teach many classes and who also help with studio management. But the average studio cannot give 10+ weekly classes to just one teacher, and we’ve found that it is the rare teacher who wants to commit to just one studio. So, regardless whether the studio or teacher chooses just a few weekly classes for that teacher, no studio can afford to pay teachers $150+ per class after paying rent (about 20% of all studio costs), managers (15%), insurance (about 5%), maintenance, construction and other loans, lawyers, accountants, cleaning crew, various computer fees, etc.

    Yes, yoga teaches us to be “rooted and grounded in the present moment.” But studio owners must always think about the future in order to preserve the studio and to protect the jobs of all teachers, and not just one.

  • Twisted Yoga Sister

    “Yoga” classes have gotten out of my budget/price range. It used to be some of the yoga classes/practices were offered as a community class or a donation class….no more. All classes cost….no more economical classes for those who just really can’t afford the memberships or per class cost. It’s a shame. So it is strictly home practice for me (except for the occasional free yoga event). Doesn’t seem like there is a true yoga community anymore…..unless you can pay for that yoga community. :(

  • Vision_Quest2

    “Community” is just a buzzword bandied about by the yoga teacher, no matter how watered down the practice.

    I took a class just a few short months ago, a third in a tiny series of that and other kinds of prepaid, discounted studio classes. It was in yoga/modern-dance fusion — (not even strictly yoga) … and she mentioned that word, community … again and again. Like it’s a sort of talisman, guaranteeing possible repeat business.

  • Yoga was never free. Traditionally, people gave up their lives and left everything to practice with their teacher. That is a very steep price to pay. The yogis would beg in the street to make sure they had food to eat. Just because a class is “free” doesn’t mean that it is somehow more in the spirit of yoga. Now a days, instead of making you give up your life, we ask for enough money to pay our overhead and take home some profit. I don’t think that is asking for much. If you cannot afford it, that is okay. That doesn’t meant that the price should come down. I can’t afford Gucci so I shop at Target. Gucci should not bring down its quality just so I can afford to wear it. I just have to find other options.

  • S.

    G.I. Gurdjieff charged a very large sum to his pupils citing that only the “efficient and hard working” would be appropriate for his teachings. Of course he had very few pupils and put them through a boot camp-esque type training like using a scythe to mow a large lawn to get them to realize themselves. I don’t know if there are any Gurdjieff practitioners still out there, but his ideas had some merit. He certainly weeded out most the Tom, Dick, and Harrys that are ever-present in today’s yoga class. $3-5k for YTT is not a lot of money compared to a college degree, but I have to agree that $35 is certainly too much for one class being taught by one of these YTT graduates. Cost should reflect the experience of the teacher, not the price of real estate for the trendy studio.

  • sallysue

    Good thoughts and I agree it’s about finding a balance. As someone who teaches part time while working full time in education I can’t help but see a parallel between this struggle and what’s experienced in other female dominated professions like education. It’s the idea that “well you are doing something you love and you are good at so you shouldn’t need the money and/or you should be willing to do it for free”. It’s like how teachers and other educators are often expected to do unpaid work on their personal time (grade papers, do lesson plans) and also buy things for their classroom the school budget can’t handle. And it’s also what you said about more part time workers with no benefits. I wouldn’t teach yoga full-time and I certainly empathize with how hard it is to make a decent living at it.

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